Humanist Perspectives: issue 188: Unlikely Friendship

Unlikely Friendship
by Nancy P. Swartz


esterday Jerry and I flew to Orlando, Florida, changing planes in Salt Lake City. Aboard the new flight we hoped for the privacy of all three seats, but a woman was assigned to our row. She looked nice enough, and we settled in for the long flight. Remembering my elementary school geography textbook, I searched out the plane’s window for the Great Salt Lake, where a person couldn’t sink because of the high salt content. Stopping in Utah was a weird coincidence; a couple of days earlier we watched the documentary, “Sons of Perdition”. By the way, if you haven’t seen the film (or read Under the Banner of Heaven) do so!

Our seatmate wore a Mormon woman’s sweetness on her face; I thought, This is going to be long and dull.

Our seatmate wore a Mormon woman’s sweetness on her face; I thought, This is going to be long and dull. She volunteered that her family had an exchange student from Slovenia who after one week announced he had to find another home. I asked what the problem was, though I expected the answer had everything to do with Mormonism.

Tracy, our new acquaintance, carefully skirted religious issues, “He objected to farm chores.”

She mentioned her husband and son were on the plane; the family was visiting a college in Orlando, since her son had completed his mission work.

“I assume you are Mormons,” I said, no longer resisting the obvious, “Is it a religious college?”

“Yes,” she admitted. This is where our conversation took an interesting turn. Tracy didn’t look old enough to have a 23 year old.

“Are you even 40?” I asked.

“42,” she said, “I married too young, I have five children.” She continued, “I’m a Feminist Mormon.”

“Really?” I said with enthusiasm.

“Yes. I wish I could live anywhere but here,” she said wistfully.

“Do you know about Sonia Johnson?” Tracy shook her head. “She was a Mormon woman, excommunicated for publicly supporting the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. I don’t suppose From Housewife to Heretic would be available in your local library.”

Tracy said she could confide in only one woman in her community; she was ostracized for questioning the authority of men. “Women are the cruelest,” she said. “When we wanted the right to wear pants to Church, women wrote more hateful threats than even the men.”

“Wait a minute, that’s the contentious issue?” I said with incredulity. “Wasn’t that taken care of in the 60s and 70s?”

“Not for Mormons,” Tracy said with sad resignation. She continued, “Men have complete control. At our last ward* meeting, one of the men walked in demanding we get on our knees and pray.” A young woman, who was distraught over her mother’s death, later told Tracy it made her feel happy and close to God. Tracy said, “I told her, let me tell you about my perspective, it felt demeaning…”

I liked Tracy the more she talked. As in my situation, none of her sisters or anyone else in her family shared her views. However, Tracy was trapped because she home schooled two of her kids; the youngest was only 11. Giving up the Church would mean giving up her family and culture, the only life she knew.

“I’m an atheist, my community are secular humanists,” I offered. “Maybe it’s because I was the second eldest daughter that Catholicism didn’t work for me. I was second best with no power. It’s easier to believe when everything goes your way.”

Tracy laughed, “I’m the second daughter too. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me!” We became fast friends in those few minutes.

I asked, “Did you see ‘Sons of Perdition’?”

“No, but I’ve heard about it.”

I said, “In the documentary one of the boys is asked if he studied about the Second World War in school. The teenager answers yes, he knew about Clinton. The interviewer replies, ‘You mean Hitler?’ The boy didn’t know who Hitler was. Later one of the boys’ sisters escapes her Mormon family; she’s asked to name the capital of the United States – she doesn’t know.”

Not surprised, Tracy said, “In Utah there’s no required curriculum for home schooling. The parent can teach anything. But I follow the public school curriculum for my children because I want them to go to college.” Looking downcast she said, “You probably don’t approve of home schooling,”

“I’m sure there are circumstances when it makes sense.” I told her about an island farm family who home schooled in British Columbia, “But they had to pass provincial tests. Each girl has been successful. One went from her mother’s kitchen table to a university PhD in science.”

With visible relief, she said, “My daughter doesn’t learn easily. I had to get her out of school.”

“Kids can be cruel to anyone different,” I said. “Is she dyslexic?”

“Yes. But now my daughter knows she can learn. She has confidence and feels better about herself.” Tracy smiled as I said, “We didn’t choose to have children, but if I had one, I would do the same to protect my child.”

I asked, “If you could live anywhere, where would you choose?”

“Maybe the East Coast, maybe Texas, anywhere,” she answered. But pausing she said, “I am helping girls here, though.” She explained that she operated a beauty salon and spa where younger women felt safe confiding in her. Tracy offered them guidance and was optimistic the 20-somethings would leave the Church in droves if they weren’t granted equal status with men.

One woman at a time, Tracy hoped to bring change to her church. But my hope was that she would go further to question her religion’s preposterous claims through reading and thinking.

I was surprised and heartened by this news. I said, “What you’re doing reminds me of a professor teaching Communication for Social Change a couple of years ago.” I explained that Dr. Arvind Singhal, respected in his field, was invited to teach in numerous large international universities; however, he chose a relatively obscure Texas border college. At the University of Texas, El Paso, he could effect positive social change for many students who crossed the Mexican border every day for class and were the first in their families to attend college.”

Tracy had not met anyone with my opinions and was interested in Professor Singhal’s use of Positive Deviance for social change. I explained, “By rejecting male privilege and dominance you are deviant in your community. Yet with no more resources than anyone else, you diffuse this positive innovative idea, questioning male authority, to other young woman.” One woman at a time, Tracy hoped to bring change to her church. But my hope was that she would go further to question her religion’s preposterous claims through reading and thinking, and through the blossoming of our unlikely friendship.

Instead of a long dull flight, our plane landed in Orlando all too quickly. We exchanged email addresses and tightly hugged each other goodbye. Our chance meeting enriched us; a few days later I was happy to read her email: “I wanted to thank you for your kindness. I enjoyed meeting you and being able to converse so openly the feelings of my heart. I don’t have many around me that I can share with.” •

*A ward is a Mormon congregation. Each ward has a [woman’s] Relief Society President who works under the Bishop to oversee welfare and other needs of families.

One woman at a time, Tracy hoped to bring change to her church. But my hope was that she would go further to question her religion’s preposterous claims through reading and thinking...

Nancy P. Swartz received her 2012 MA in Professional Communications from Royal Roads University, Victoria, British Columbia. She and her husband Jerry divide their time between Prevost Island, Victoria, and Hawaii. In these beautiful environments, thanks to the digital age, they seek information, ponder, and strive for wisdom.
  1. Glionna , J. M. (December 14, 2012). Los Angeles Times: Mormon feminists tout ‘Wear Pants to Church Day’; fury ensues. Retrieved November 29, 2012 from
  2. Golden, J., Measom, T., & Merten (Producers), & Measom, T., & Merten (Directors). (2010). Sons of perdition [Documentary]. United States: Left Turn Films (Available from
  3. Johnson, S. (1981). From Housewife to Heretic. New York, NY: Doubleday
  4. Krakauer, J. (2003). Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Maine: Anchor.
  5. Singhal, A. (2013). Positive deviance: Uncovering innovations that are invisible in plain sight. Retrieved November 29, 2013 from